As promised, here's Part II of my conversation with wildlife conservationist Neil Paprocki of Wild Lens, Inc. about his soon-to-be-released documentary, Bluebird Man. Quick, grab yourself an iced tea and chill with us awhile!
Pretend you’re responding to this next question via Twitter. In 130 characters, please introduce yourself and describe the work you do with Wild Lens, Inc.
I am a conservation biologist working for a non-profit focused on using film to educate people about wildlife conservation issues.
Bluebird Man, Neil Paprocki's latest project.
There seems to be a special bond between humans and bluebirds. Can you explain why that is, and how it came to be?
I care very deeply about the bonds and interactions between human and wildlife communities. With over 7 billion people on earth, we have such a huge impact on wildlife communities that these interactions will be critically important to saving and preserving our precious wildlife. We can’t help but affect the wildlife communities around us, and while this interaction is often negative, it can also be very positive for both humans and species like bluebirds.
Bluebird populations across North America, but especially on the east coast, declined dramatically from 1920 to 1970. What happened next was something truly amazing. Thanks in part to a 1970s National Geographic article, the North American Bluebird Society was formed and began providing bluebirds with additional nesting habitat by constructing nest boxes. Some people took this business of creating more habitat for bluebirds very seriously. As a consequence of this a deep bond was struck between humans and bluebirds.
One such person was Alfred Larson of Boise, Idaho [aka Bluebird Man]. After reading that National Geographic article, Al decided to help by putting up a few bluebird boxes around his house. That was 1978. Fast-forward 35 years to today and Al is still monitoring over 300 bluebird boxes all across southwest Idaho at the crisp young age of 91! Over his 35-year bluebird career, he has banded and raised over 27,000 nestling bluebirds, an astonishing number.
Most bird feathers receive their color from pigments that are in part produced by the food they eat (i.e. carotenoids produce yellow/orange colors). The blue in bluebird feathers however, is a rather rare color in nature and is not produced by pigments. Instead, the blue color is a ‘structural’ color produced by light reflecting off small structures in the feathers creating the blue color we see with our eyes.
Male Western Bluebird wing shows his structural blue coloring
How can I identify North American bluebirds from other birds with blue feathers?
There are three species of bluebirds in North America: Eastern, Western, and Mountain Bluebirds. These are the only species of bluebirds found in the world, and they are unique to the North American continent. Mountain Bluebirds are the easiest to identify, as they are a brilliant sky blue that deepens in color from the belly to the back. Eastern and Western Bluebirds look very similar and are more of a royal blue with a rufous, or chestnut colored, chest. The biggest difference between the two is that the chestnut colored chest of the Eastern Bluebird extends all the way up the chest to the neck of the bird, while the Western Bluebird has a royal blue neck. Other species of North American birds with blue feathers include Jays, Buntings, Warblers, Swallows, Kingfishers, Grosbeaks, Kestrels, and Merlins.
Male Western Bluebird
Even though bluebirds are not a threatened or endangered species they can still use our help. Bluebirds are secondary cavity nesters, they don’t make holes in trees, but depend on other animals such as woodpeckers to create holes in which to nest. During the mid-1900s, bluebird populations declined precipitously because of a decrease in nesting cavities, habitat loss, climatic events, and invasive species such as House Sparrows. Conservation efforts helped reverse the declines, but these birds still need our help to maintain their current population levels.
I’ve noticed several Bluebird boxes in my own neighborhood, and many Bluebird organizations are encouraging people to buy or construct them. Is this a fad, or…?
This is no fad. People have been building bluebird boxes for a long time. Things really picked up in the late 1970s after that amazingly popular National Geographic article discussed bluebird population declines and what people could do about it. The solution: put out boxes with small holes in the front to encourage bluebirds to nest in them. For almost 40 years people have been constructing these nest boxes and continue to do so today. As long as people still have a love for these birds, then the monitoring of nest boxes will continue to aid bluebird populations.
Alfred Larson (aka Bluebird Man) checks a bluebird nest
This is a very important question as placing a Bluebird box in your own yard entails A LOT of responsibility. First and foremost, you must consider whether or not your yard is good bluebird habitat. If it is not, then placing a box in your yard will likely result in an empty box, or use by other bird species. Second, bluebirds have a variety of nest predators such as raccoons and snakes, and care must be taken to place and construct the nest box in such a way as to be inaccessible to nest predators. Lastly, several non-native bird species such as House Sparrows and European Starlings are aggressive nest competitors to bluebirds. However, boxes can be constructed in such a way as to minimize use by these invasive birds.
Once you have placed your nest box in a well thought out location, regular check-ins and maintenance are a must. Nest boxes should be monitored weekly at the most, to watch for nesting progress and to make sure introduced species like House Sparrows are not using your box. Also, bluebirds will not clean out old nests from the boxes themselves after a breeding season. If you want your box to be used year-after-year, then you must clean out the box every fall or winter to make sure there is room for the bluebirds to nest in it the following year. Much more information can be found about setting up your own bluebird nest box or bluebird trail on the North American Bluebird Society website.
Thank you so much for fielding my questions! I admire your conservation efforts, and appreciate your willingness to take time away from your Kickstarter Campaign to help educate us about these beautiful winged creatures.
Female bluebird in flight